Data guru Harvey Lauer points to fitness opportunities

On the last morning of this year's Health & Fitness Business Expo, Harvey Lauer, founder and president of American Sports Data Inc. (ASD), filled a little more than an hour with reams of numbers from his recent studies. It was a goldmine for savvy, statistic-silly fitness folks, filled with oodles of numbers and a key, albeit somewhat intuitive, take-away message.

On the last morning of this year’s Health & Fitness Business Expo, Harvey Lauer, founder and president of American Sports Data Inc. (ASD), filled a little more than an hour with reams of numbers from his recent studies—The Superstudy of Sports Participation, and A Comprehensive Study of American Attitudes Toward Health Clubs and Physical Fitness.

It was one of only three educational sessions left on the morning schedule at the event and was a goldmine for savvy, statistic-silly fitness folks, filled with oodles of numbers and a key, albeit somewhat intuitive, take-away in the session titled, “The American Fitness Revolution: Past, Present and Future.”

Although copy-heavy presentation slides lacked pictures, SNEWS enjoyed various images during the brief historical overview of fitness, with visions of runners in tube socks in the 1970s, Jane Fonda workouts in the 1980s, seniors weight-training in the 1990s and people of all types enjoying the “kinder, gentler” fitness the likes of yoga and Pilates in the new millennium.

But Lauer reiterated that the pervasive disconnect between attitudes and behavior that particularly challenges this industry still holds true: Although 80 percent of the U.S. population believes in physical fitness, only 20 percent, or about 51 million people, get enough exercise.

Describing potential — but really false — threats to the future of fitness, Lauer appeared unfazed. For instance, the fat and fit philosophy still requires that a person be fit, so exercise is necessary, and the utopian notion of a magic pill is unlikely to significantly change behavior, as only 38 percent of people in Lauer’s study claim they would be less likely to exercise if they could take a pill that would prevent weight gain. (We’re not so sure about that second one, given the tendency in studies to say what others want to hear.)

What benefits the industry, however, is that 26 percent of Americans say they suffer from a lot of stress (only 26 percent?), 62 percent admit to being “a little to considerably overweight” and 74 percent claim that health clubs provide motivation to exercise. What’s more, with only 36.3 million health club members in the United States, 26.7 million outdoor frequent exercisers and 17.1 million frequent home exercisers, there is ample room to grow the exercise business, Lauer told the group.

While health club membership has continued to grow over the years, home and outdoor exercise has remained relatively flat, he said his statistics show (Hmmm, we may question this, but statistics can be molded to say whatever you want). The age-old challenge for the industry, he said, remains this: How to take exercise, which Lauer insists is inherently unpleasant or even painful for many, and make it appealing. Lauer points out that people are gravitating toward health clubs because they want to take advantage of motivation and knowledge there.

Apparently growing the business is better undertaken by first understanding the levels of fitness consciousness, which smacked a bit like IHRSA’s study a few years ago that categorized the population into cute names like the “woulda-shouldas” and the “abracadabras.” ASD’s classifications lacked the clever labels but had the same idea. (Of course, ASD as we recall did IHRSA’s study, so there we go with the similarity.) Lauer’s names are much more esoteric, considering his background is psychology.

Two percent of the population is called non-believers (Consciousness I – see what we mean?), who don’t buy into the value of exercise and who may soon be extinct. That contrasts with 17 percent of folks, which includes many of us industry folk, or the hard-core participants of Consciousness IV. In the middle fall the indifferent (16 percent in Consciousness II), who are fairly sold on the idea of fitness but aren’t doing anything active, and Consciousness III, the uninitiated believers (a whopping 63 percent) who claim, “I know exercise is important, and I’d like to participate in fitness activities more than I do.”

According to Lauer, Consciousness III constitutes the low-hanging fruit that retailers, manufacturers and clubs should target. (That’s kind of a DUH we say.). After all, they already are convinced of the virtues of fitness but may be overweight, unhealthy and self-conscious. Marketing to them, Lauer says, essentially amounts to “make it easy and they will come.”

For clubs, that means some hand-holding the likes of floor assistance, personal training and buddy programs, as well as other “feel good” tactics such as same-gender facilities, dress codes, no mirrors and mind-body classes. To attract home exercisers, however, almost all of Lauer’s suggestions already exist: Things like making available gear like light hand weights, low-end treadmills, and fitness walking tapes and videos. Perhaps the only one that still needs work is making equipment more user-friendly and less intimidating, as well as the stores in which they are sold a tad warmer and more welcoming.

What’s it ultimately going to take for people to get their hearts pumping? Lauer predicts some support will come in the form of an eventual U.S. government subsidy that will reward healthy lifestyles with $500 tax deductions. Beyond that, he hopes in 2050 that “daily workouts will be the norm and non-exercisers will be social outcasts.”

SNEWS View: Here-here, to that last comment, one we have made ourselves in other forms. Certainly these statistics are compelling and point to tremendous opportunity for the industry. We wish more people would have chosen to roll out of bed Saturday, the last morning of the show (probably only 50 folks or so attended), to take a listen. Retailers, manufacturers and clubs are only slowly learning that marketing with muscle-bound, perfectly toned, sweaty bodies doesn’t compel the uninitiated believers to start pumping iron. We do see some movement in the right direction, mind you. Perhaps unfortunately, for anyone who read the interview with Harvey Lauer in the August 2003 issue of IHRSA’s Club Business International magazine, this presentation essentially was a rerun. As an aside, it’s too bad that Sporting Goods Business editor Mark Sullivan, who introduced Lauer and sat on the dais, looked utterly depressed by it all (maybe he just needed some a potent java from Starbuck’s). SGB had sponsored the talk and for that we are very grateful, but a little energy, enthusiasm, and an occasional weak smile would be appreciated too. This is supposed to be fun and motivating!

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